Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord

[Scripture Readings: Is. 7:10-14; Heb. 10:4-10; Luke 1:26-38]

Last Saturday's Telegraph-Herald contained a column by Lyn Jerde, who is a weekly contributor on a religious topic. She discussed her unease at describing anyone as “holy”, since it seemed incompatible with our status as sinners. She worked her way into describing a holy person as someone with a “hyper-awareness of the presence of God” and holiness as a special way of looking at life, the world, and other persons. There is, I think, a not uncommon reaction of keeping the “holy” at a distance. An attitude of thinking of holiness as a specialization, “other-worldly” behavior, maybe even as sanctimonious and sacralized. Dorothy Day once rejected being called a saint because she didn't want to be dismissed so readily.

One of the revolutionary unearthings of a forgotten truth by Vatican II was that of the universal call to holiness. In Lumen Gentium it declared that the Church is holy because it is “joined to Christ as His Body and is endowed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.” God sends the Holy Spirit “to all to move them interiorly to love Him with all their heart and strength.” Holiness is the dignity of the person in their innermost self, acquired by participation in divine life. It is a response flowing from this new life given in the anointing of the Spirit.

The celebration of the Annunciation to Mary recalls this inaugural event which has rewritten salvation history and our own history within it. “The Lord is with you.” We celebrate a God who is present to us, Emmanuel, a God who is with us and within us. Mary is full of grace, full of the presence of God in a preeminent way. But we too are filled with grace. It is the gift of God himself within us. Grace is not an external qualification or status. It is a way of being in God.

This God is a personal God who speaks to us. He is a God who desires, who delights, who makes choices, who selects and elects. Pope Benedict XVI in Verbum Domini writes that “the novelty of Biblical revelation consists in the fact that God becomes known to us through the dialogue he desires to have with us.” He does not speak in a monologue or in proscriptive edicts. As the angel dialogued with Mary, God desires to dialogue with us. We come to know ourselves in this dialogue, in the questions and hesitations that rise in our hearts. It is a truism in theology, philosophy, and psychology that we are who we are in relation with others. We need others to know and to be ourselves. Our relation with God and our interchange with him opens up inner realms of ourselves otherwise inaccessible. The uniqueness of our own being is evoked in this dialogue with God, our inner horizons and “inscape” expand beyond our ordinary comprehension.

It is no wonder that Mary would be troubled and ask “how can this be?” At this address from God, she passed beyond the mystery of her self into the mystery of God and offered her own body as the womb of God. As we were told by Father James in our recent retreat, the entry of the Word of God into our lives does anything but promise a smooth trajectory. It is disorienting and disturbing. Things may well fall apart. They did so for Mary who had occasion many times in her life to ask “How can this be?” But again as Father James reminded us “Poverty is the place where we let God be Himself.” Our poverty and emptiness is the womb of the infinity of God. It is where we discover our new name, as Mary discovered her name, “Handmaid of the Lord.”